Excerpt from Author Unknown by Don Foster, plus links to reviews, author biography & more

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Author Unknown

On The Trail of Anonymous

by Don Foster

Author Unknown
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  • First Published:
    Nov 2000, 318 pages
    Aug 2001, 320 pages

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One must eat. I enrolled in San Jose State University for the simple purpose of getting a teaching certificate. Looking through the 1978 catalog's fall offerings, my eye was caught by a graduate course in Shakespeare taught by Professor Scott Hymas. He was a genial, pipe-smoking scholar of the old school, who neither published nor perished but was a damned good teacher, a master, one of the best I've known. Since returning to the States I had spent my days with the expository prose of earnest, hardworking adolescents. My evenings and weekends were now spent with Shakespeare, who gave me back not just the Globe, but the world, in majestic verse and iambic pentameter. I put the real world on a back burner and forgot about it.


I was not looking for Shakespeare in 1984 when I found "A Funeral Elegy" by "W.S.," nor even looking for a good murder mystery -- the poem is about a 1612 homicide victim -- nor did I immediately recognize the verse as creditable to the greatest writer in the history of the English language. Twelve years later, having connected "W.S." with Shakespeare, I found myself on the front page of the New York Times, and hooked by my pants suspenders to a fast-moving train. I had to run fast to keep up. The arcane world of dusty archival libraries suddenly melted into a blur of political intrigue and criminal mayhem. This was not entirely un-Shakespearean in itself, but I was unprepared for the transition from academic discussions of fictional violence and cupidity to being a principal in cases involving corporate fraud or political scandal or homicidal violence.

The methodology I had used to ascertain the provenance of the "Funeral Elegy" -- which is academic for Why I Pinned It on Shakespeare -- was immediately understood by prosecutors and other probers to be a useful tool for unmasking the identities and hidden hands behind terrorist tracts, blackmail letters, and the like. The scientific analysis of a text -- how mind and a hand conspire to commit acts of writing -- can reveal features as sharp and telling as anything this side of fingerprints and DNA. Although we disguise our writing voice, it can never be fully masked. After the crime, the words remain. Like fingerprints and DNA.

I should add that another cliché soon to be proved to me was No good deed goes unpunished. Early in 1996 when I analyzed the text and concluded that reporter Joe Klein was the "Anonymous" author of Primary Colors, his colleagues forgave him for lying to their faces faster than he has me for telling the truth in New York magazine. But on the basis of that highly visible display of what was an arcane scholarly method, I have for the past several years been called into service, by press or police, as a gumshoe.

Not even after Primary Colors did it occur to me that my field of critical expertise might have application and usefulness outside academia -- not until November 1996, when I was asked to examine the writings of a former university professor, Theodore J. Kaczynski. Two months later, with the known writings of the Unabomber sitting on my desk beside known writings by the defendant, I stepped backward through the looking glass and found myself in the real world again for the first time in years. Having entered literary studies in 1978, the same year in which Ted Kaczynski began his bombing crusade, I was now presented with a fresh challenge: to develop a science of literary forensics, to adapt for the courts and, later, for criminal investigations a methodology that was originally intended for the study of anonymous poems, plays, and novels.


With unattributed texts -- say, an e-mail from a Hotmail.com address, or a pseudonymous letter to the editor, or even a lyric poem -- it is often impossible to connect the voice (the persona, the internal "I" of the text) with the name of whoever actually wrote the document. But with most anonymous texts, from Anglo-Saxon lays, to Elizabethan playscripts, to Internet libels, stylistic evidence can take us a lot further than many scholars and detectives have realized. Drawing on the success of my precursors in attributional research, and learning from their mistakes, I have sought to develop reliable methods by which to distinguish one writer's language from another's.

Copyright © 2000 Don Foster

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